Steven Yantis, Ph.D.'s  picture
Steven Yantis, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Johns Hopkins University

What Is Attention?

What is Attention?

The word is used in countless contexts, but what does it really mean to "pay attention" and how does the brain help us focus on one thing (and tune out others)?

We often hear that a key to successful learning is focused attention—on the teacher, on a reading assignment or on a learning task. But what exactly is attention? The core idea of attention is perceptual or cognitive selection. Our minds take in information from the world through our senses—mostly vision and hearing—and there is always much more information than our minds can grasp at once.

Experimental psychologists have found that, with rare exceptions, we can only deal with one source of information or line of thought at a time. So our minds must select a small subset of the available sensory world or possible lines of thought and ignore the rest.

This selection can take place in several ways. We usually look at what we’re paying attention to, because vision is best at the center of gaze. But it’s easy to shift attention, without moving a muscle, from these words to, say, the pressure of the chair against your back. In a crowded room with many conversations, you select one conversation to listen to and the rest becomes background babble. Driving while talking on a cell phone—even a hands-free phone—is as dangerous as driving drunk, because even though your eyes are on the road, your mind is occupied with the conversation, and this will slow your responses to unexpected events such as sudden traffic stops or a child running into the road. You can think of attention as the volume controls of the brain—if you turn up one source of information, you necessarily have to turn down all the others.

Studies of the human brain have provided insights about why we can attend to just one thing at a time and how the mind controls attention. There are brain circuits originating in prefrontal cortex—the site of planning and decision-making—that control attention according to our current goals. So focusing on the teacher’s voice and ignoring the students just letting out for recess requires an active intention to ignore the distraction (even though it might be of great interest). Other brain circuits mediate the capture of attention by salient events (something that stands out, like a door slamming) or by rewarding events (you automatically check your phone when the chime announces a new message). These signals are like the teacher calling out, telling your brain, "Pay attention!"

Related Reading

"Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again," NPR

"New Study Identifies Brain Centers for Attention Control,"